By: Ellaha Rasa
The vortex of doom
Susan was 28 years old and in eighth grade in high school, fulfilling her dream of getting an education, when the Taliban took control of Afghanistan. The ongoing uncertainty for girls and women means her family decided the only thing left for her to do was to marry.
“When the schools were closed, my father was disappointed. But he told me that he can’t bear the poverty anymore and wait for me to finish school in the future to become something for myself. So he’s married me off to someone,” Susan says.
The wedding will soon go ahead and she will leave her family home in Shaidayi area of Herat city to live with her husband and his family.
“If the schools were not closed, this would not have happened,” she says.
Susan does not want to meet in person for this interview. She speaks through the phone in a voice that communicates her sorrow. “I’m so sad that I can’t go to school,” she says. “I wish I could finish my studies in the future and be able to do something for myself and my family, but now all my wishes have come to nothing.”
Another victim of war and the Taliban
Susan says that her life has been moulded by war and poverty. But like so many girls and women, the strength of the Taliban has brought bigger challenges. One of them being the rise of forced marriages.
Born in Bala Murghab district of Badghis province, Susan’s family survived the violent clashes in their province for many years between the former Afghan national security forces and Taliban fighters.
But three years ago, her family – parents, two brothers, and two sisters – fled the skirmishes and conflict to set themselves up in Herat. Once they arrived there, they were met with crippling poverty. As refugees and non-locals, they struggled to make ends meet and earn enough to cover their cost of living. Once the Taliban took control of Afghanistan and the fighting in Badghis stopped, Susan says her family could not afford to travel back to Bala Murghab and repair their house, destroyed in the fighting.
Unable to pay off debts, Susan’s father decided to marry Susan off instead. She says that of the 200,000 afghanis he received as a dowry for his daughter’s marriage, he has given 150,000 to his debtors. “He still owes money to his debtors. He might give them the rest of the money (he was keeping) because they are pissing him off.”
The Taliban taking control of Afghanistan on August 15 in 2021 changed everything. With the schools closed to female students, there was little for Susan to do or look forward to. She had dreamed of studying medicine, but now she says that she feels stuck in a vortex with no control. She says the impact on her mental health has been profound.
It’s also had a massive impact on men. Due to the poverty stemming from a failing economy, Susan’s fiancé smuggled himself into Iran, like thousands of other men, so that he could work for the money to pay for the wedding and also help support his family.
Don’t even think of going to school!
Mozhgan Ahmadi*, 18, was a seventh-grade student at Sardar Mohammad Dawood Khan School in Shaidayi district of Herat before the Taliban took over. She had begger her family to let her get an education and they had finally relented. But once the schools were closed, her family ultimately forced her to get engaged against her will to her mother’s uncle’s grandson.
Mozhgan is originally from Badghis Province. She says that her fiancé’s job is well-digging, which doesn’t bring in a lot of income. He is engaged to Mozhgan for a dowry of 700,000 afghanis, but is finding it difficult to meet this amount in the terrible economic situation.
She had hoped her fiancé would support her dream of an education, but he has refused. “He says, Don’t even think of going to school! The security situation is not good and the Taliban don’t allow girls to study, you don’t need to go to school anymore.”
Mozghan says her fiancé now takes it even further. “According to my fiancé, a woman should not study at all,” she says. “She should always be at home and take care of her family and children.”
She says that if she has a daughter, she will fight for her to go to school.
“Badghis people don’t like their daughters going to school. They all study in the mosque,” she says. “But I like going to school and if God gives me a daughter, I will let her go to school.”
Mozhgan says that she always restlessly follows news in the media to hear any news about the reopening of schools.
Kobra Karimi*, who worked as a prosecutor in the previous government, says that with the Taliban takeover, the number of underage and forced marriages have increased. According to her, the growing economic poverty, lack of women’s rights education and awareness, and the closure of schools and universities are the key reasons for these forced and underage marriages.
“We are seeing more forced marriages in the provinces and in Kabul. The weak economy and poverty of families are driving more of these,” Ms. Karimi says. “During the previous government, the increase in girls attending schools and universities saw forced marriages decrease. But now the number is increasing again.”
Since August 2021, the Taliban closed girls’ schools above the sixth grade and have since suspended the universities and educational centers for women across the country.
*Note: The names of the interviewees have been chosen as pseudonyms.